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Reflections on history, biology and steel

By J.K Obatala
12 December 2021   |   2:09 am
As a professional writer, with some 53 to 54 years of experience, I choose my adjectives carefully. Referring to this assembly as “historic” and “crucially important,” was neither unthinking nor incidental.

J.K Obatala

As a professional writer, with some 53 to 54 years of experience, I choose my adjectives carefully. Referring to this assembly as “historic” and “crucially important,” was neither unthinking nor incidental.

Your invitation affirms, with a flourish, that new social ground is, indeed, being broken. Its blurb fetes NGO Network, the Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa and the CSO Coalition for the Revival of Ajaokuta, as pioneers.

The invitation avers, further, that this National Conference on Ajaokuta Steel Project and President Muhammadu Buhari’s Industrialization Agenda, is “the first of its kind to be facilitated by the civil society sector.”

This gives me pause to ponder. Have leaders of the national unions, media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations, been somehow harvesting my brainwaves—and reading my thoughts?

I’ve often postulated in moments of reflection—and opined, in personal exchanges—that sector activism, such as we’re seeing here at the Army Resource Centre, would seem to be the way forward, for sustaining strategic industries.

My fervent wish, is that the activists who have ushered Nigeria onto this wondrous new social vista, will coalesce into a national steel interest group, whose purview encompasses the entire steel industry (legislature included).

Its primary objective, would be to ensure that there is never a repeat of the policy lapses, that stymied the steel sector, after Russia, and the Eastern-Bloc countries, had put Nigeria on the path to rapid industrialization.

Indeed, a national steel activism, could, conceivably, provide the impetus for other interest groups to emulate the Ajaokuta coalitions and safeguard sectors such as “Space,” “Atomic Energy,” “Fishing,” “Plastics” and “Aluminum”.

But before we move to the second “adjective,” maybe I should digress and elaborate on my identity. Many may remember, that I wrote an “Astronomy” and “Space Science” column, in The Guardian newspaper, for 16 years—up to 2017.

You’ll be surprised to learn, though, that my area of specialization was formerly steel! In fact, I lived at the Delta Steel Company (D.S.C.) for a decade or so—and was integrally involved in the effort to restart the plant, after its first closure.

When the press campaign yielded results—and the legislature sent a contingent to D.S.C.—Engineer Obi Okoye, the then Managing Director, awarded me a lifetime residency at Camp Extension. But when he left, I had to pack out!

Now, back to my second “adjective”: That is, the “crucial” importance of this convention. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, “crucial” means “extremely important because it will affect other things”.

The remainder of this address, is concerned with those “other things”—most of which are “ideas” and “abstractions”. An idea is a plan, or thought, about what to do. Ideas not associated with any specific thing, are said to be “abstract”.

This convention is “crucial,” because it’s a turning point. It stands in starkly striking contrast to the lonely struggle Engineer Okoye and I waged at D.S.C.—until the national media came to our rescue.

But “turning” towards what? Do you have a vision of the future? Will history and genetics, for instance, be factored into your plans for the steel industry? If not, Ajaokuta and the other plants will be stillborn. They’ll fail, like D.S.C. has.

Let me explain why. The time must surely come, when Ajaokuta is not cost-effective. It could be soon, after its inauguration; or later, due to unforeseen exigencies, such as the dumping of foreign steel into the Nigerian market.

Whenever such a crisis comes, policymakers must have a conception of steel, that looks beyond financial “profit-and-loss”. Steel must be seen as a vital evolutionary asset, whose production has what biologists call “fitness relevance”.

In Darwinian theory, “fitness relevant” behaviour (or information) enhances an organism’s capacity to produce offspring and wage competitive warfare (fight for survival!)—which drives Earth’s biology.

The competitive advantage steel production confers, stems from the fact that most capital and consumer goods, either: (a) Contain steel; (b) are manufactured with steel machines; or (c) are transported in vehicles, made mainly of steel.

Survival advantages, are passed from one generation to the next, via sexual activity and/or learning. All living organisms—even plants and bacteria—learn. In fact, “intelligence” is largely defined, as the ability to learn from past experiences.

This is where history comes in. A knowledge of the past, helps us to understand the present and prepare for the future! I will summarize two principles from neuroscience, to illustrate my point.

First, the free energy principle, sees the brain as a predictive machine, whose role is to minimize surprises—i.e., anticipate future events. This entails reducing “free energy,” which neuroscientists equate with entropy (i.e., disorder, chaos).

The other principle, is mental time travel, in which neurons tap into the brain’s databank of past experience (stored memories), before making decisions about the future. Mental time travel, occurs at both the organismic and societal levels.

A society’s “databank,” is its history: Collective memories, stored in libraries, archives and school textbooks. Having failed to access this databank, Nigerian decision-makers were impervious to the value of steel, as a survival asset.

Yet, Africa’s ancient industrial past, affirms the fitness relevance of this strategic alloy. As far back as 2000 years ago, for example, Tanzania’s Haya people were producing medium-carbon steel in preheated, forced-draft furnaces.
• Prof. Obatala gave this goodwill message at the Nigerian Army Resource Centre, Asokoro, Abuja on November 25, 2021 during a conference of civil society activists, who are collaborating with policymakers, in their efforts to resuscitate the Ajaokuta Steel complex.